Sunday, January 30, 2011

Memory lane, kiwi style

This week's Travel Dispatch newsletter e-mail included this gem about my former nation of residence (just six months, but still, I like claiming it).

The New York Times article about New Zealand, know to the Maori's as Aotearoa or "land of the long white cloud," is a walk down memory lane for me.

Adventure seekers flock to New Zealand. I went because I had resigned from my college newspaper and as "newspaper girl" simply didn't know who I was anymore. Sounds silly now, but at 20, I was quite upset. A friend of mine, who is a whopping five years older -- again, at 20, it seems bigger than it does now at 27 since I realize I had no idea what I was doing at 25, I took advice from that guy? He had spent a year after college traveling the world, including nine months in Australia, New Zealand's neighbor that often overshadows New Zealand, sadly.

At lunch one day, when I was having a woe is me moment and whatever will I do with my life without the newspaper meltdown, he said to me, "Jenn, you are not tied down. You can do anything."

"Like what?"

"Go abroad."


"Do you like the beach?"

"Not really."

"Go to New Zealand."


Seriously, that's how it went down.

I went home that night after classes and my parents where in the entry way or kitchen or somewhere near the door when I walked in. I lived at home that year, my junior year, because it was only about 20 miles from campus and I barely had time to sleep, so I figured it was ridiculous to spend a few thousand dollars a year for a room I spent so little time in.

Mom and/or Dad: "How was your day?"

Me: "I quit the newspaper and I'm going to New Zealand."

Blank stares from the parents.

But, not too much later, I was on a plane to the adventure capital of the world.

In the article, the author cheats death a few times (okay, not really, but you do feel that way doing some of these activities.)

When we arrived in New Zealand (we, being all the other American students who were part of the program) we could go zorbing, which is rolling down a hill in a giant plastic bubble. I opted out of that one since I hadn't really slept in a few days and was pretty sure I'd get sick. But, we also went to the hot springs and caving near Roturua on the North Island.

During a break in classes, I spent two weeks exploring the South Island, which is where I lived at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.

I happened to win a pass for bungee jumping in Queenstown, so I did it. Otherwise, I'm pretty positive I wouldn't have. I'd never had an overwhelming desire to jump of a bridge in a canyon, 141 feet above a river, but you know, why not?

Before hand, I wasn't too nervous. Even getting the safety briefing and getting out to the bridge, I was fine. Until the girl ahead of the kid ahead of me couldn't decide to jump or not. She was going to do, then she wasn't. Then she was, then she wasn't. Finally, the bungee guy said jump or leave. She jumped. The kid in front of me had no issues.

Then it was my turn. Creeping up to the edge, 141 feet above the river looked a whole lot higher. I was all set and firmly tied to the bridge that I was about to jump off of. The guy said, "Okay, go for it. Five, four, three..."

"Hold on, hold on!" (You actually to jump off a bridge, you know, exactly the opposite of when your mom says, if so and so jumped off a bridge, would you? Well, yes, mom, I would.)

"What, are you scared?"

"No, I just wasn't ready. Start over!"

"Five, four, three, two..."

I closed my eyes and more fell than jumped. I just couldn't throw myself off a bridge at 141 feet above a river, but with my eyes closed, I sort of just leaned forward until gravity did the work.

My eyes stayed firmly shut until I had hit the bottom (just above the water line) and was starting to bounce back up and down. It was kind of spectacular to just be floating in the air for a second (despite the fact that in reality you're hurtling toward water/earth and certain death without the nifty bungee cord they invented at AJ Hackett.

After you finish your jump, you're just hanging from a bridge above the river. Some guys float out to you in a little raft and with a plastic pipe they hold up to you and you grab on, then basically dump you in the raft and float you back to the river's edge, where you have to climb back up the 141 feet you just fell from. Pretty much straight up. I found that my legs were a little like jelly after the jump, so getting back to the top where my friends were waiting was tough work.

They'd been shouting USA, USA, USA! as I jumped, but I hardly noticed, the whole hurtling toward a river thing. But, I bought the dvd of the entire event to prove to everyone at home that I did in fact jump off a bridge and I wouldn't probably not want to do it again. You can hear the patriotic chant in the background. Funnier still, because the friends with me were an Irish lass and lad, a girl from England and a girl from Germany.

Up next, we got back in our rental car and headed to see the All Blacks (the national rugby team) play South Africa in the Tri-Nations cup. We won of course.

There was also horseback riding in Queenstown. My horse, Sledge, was in the Lord of the Rings. He wasn't a prominent horse, but still, he was more famous than the others and he knew it. So we fell further and further behind the group, because Sledge would go at exactly his own pace, because he's a celebrity.

But, toward the end, he decided we should catch up. The guide had taught me how to trot, in case we got behind just as we did, but Sledge would have none of it. I did what I was told to make him go faster and instead, we galloped the rest of the way, blowing past the others. I'm also glad the guide gave me this nugget of advice: if nothing else, hold on to the mane for dear life. I did. But, I loved galloping. The guide told me she'd never seen a first time rider gallop so well. Apparently, most people are absolutely frantic if the horse takes off like that. I asked if I could do it again.

I'll have to continue this later, because there are many more adventures to write about, but this is getting a bit long.

Read the NY Times article and then book a flight to New Zealand. Do it. You know you want to.

Bought the book

It was payday this week and after roaming through Barnes and Noble looking for an entirely different book I realized I should stop stalling and just buy the book.

The Lonely Planet guide for Estonia that is.

So I jumped on the Lonely Planet site where I get extra discounts for participating in the Traveler's Pulse surveys. I bought the Estonia guide, phrasebook for Baltic languages and since free shipping was offered on orders more than $40, I went ahead and bought the Europe on a Shoestring guide, because I figured I could easily pop over to Europe and explore bits and pieces as I go. I found an old Europe guide to be very handy when I went to Slovenia, I simply ripped out the pages for Paris and Venice and a few others since I had time for day trips to those mega tourist cities while I was there. Easier than carrying the whole book.

For the most part, once I've bought the guide, it means I'll be buying a plane ticket in the near future. I will go to Estonia this year, so buying the book is merely some mental reassurance I guess. Once the books arrive and I start planning, well consider me gone!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Unrest in Egypt

When I woke up this morning I had a message from my friend Abbie about Egypt. She came to visit me in Alabama for my 25th birthday and we made a plan to go to Egypt for our 30th birthdays. We're both August babies and only 20 days apart in age.
We've been sending books about Egypt travel, e-mails about travel deals and more for the last few years and even met an Egyptian while walking on the National Mall last year. He was looking for the Air and Space Museum.
So we are both carefully watching the events unfolding there now and are deeply saddened by the unrest, but hope that we will still be able to visit the country soon and that the people will maintain their freedoms and that despite the violence, will become a stronger nation still and the events will simply add to the country's incredibly rich history.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dixie to the Commonwealth

I haven't written about the big move yet. And now that a few months have passed, it's all much funnier to me.

After weeks of quasi-packing, I finally had things pretty much ready to go. I had reserved a truck online, about four hours before I wanted to pick it up. Lesson learned, because they don't just keep tons of trucks available when you need them. The woman at the pick-up spot was pleasant and she told me they had the truck but not the car tow. Minor detail.

It might surprise you to learn that I am quite the planner. And my plans often come with multiple contingency plans. If this, then this. Pretty sure that comes from my dad, being a career military officer. Dad almost always had a plan.

Having a plan means for easy adaptation when the first one doesn't work.

With no car tow, a truck was no good to me.

So, I headed down the road to a Penske rental shop to find out if they had a truck and how much it might cost me. (Because moving yourself seems like it would be cheaper, but honestly, I'm not so sure that's the case.)

The only truck they had available to leave on my originally scheduled day was 26 feet long. Add a car tow to that, I would basically have been driving a semi, compared to my everyday Corolla.

The rental man said I should go look at the truck to see if I thought I could drive it.

Standing in the grass on the side of 231 at the Penske shop, I was practically in tears.

Ben, the boyfriend, now making his first appearance on the blog, was with me and offered to come back and help me pick up and load the first available 16 foot truck and car tow a few days later.

The delay bought me a few more days of "hey, Jenn's moving, let's have a get together!" and a "last Waffle Wednesday!" that turned into waffles, wine and whiskey Wednesday.

Finally, the truck was loaded and Grover and I were ready to hit the road. After a long, hot day of loading, strategically positioning boxes and furniture, putting the car on the tow and managing to slice my hand on a mirror, we waved goodbye to Montgomery.

We spent the night in Auburn and had breakfast with Ben and then were on our way. We were behind schedule and had to pitstop for a nap. Grover slept the entire time. For misbehaving fool of a puppy, he does very well in the car. His dog bed was scrunched in between the seats in the truck and he was the perfect pup.

Everything was going fine, I was navigating my monster of a truck through 'bama, Georgia and had made it to North Carolina with no incidents. I made it through gas stations, stopped for food and by the time we were close to our hotel it was late. I was really looking forward to getting out of the truck and crashing for the night. We got off the interstate to see the hotel I had strategically picked for its proximity to the interstate and lack of turns, but the entrances weren't especially well marked and I overshot. Thinking I could go a little further ahead and turn around, I found I was in a neighborhood, had no idea where the road went and it was late. I wanted to sleep!

I saw a street sign that was a something "lane" and thought, my parents' house is on a "lane" and it's a huge cul de sac. So I turned left and was ready for the easy cul de sac.

I was devastated when the road went straight and ended. Just ended into woods. Now I had a major problem. The road was narrow, had ditches, driveways and parked cars on both sides.

Exhaustion, stress and frustration took over and I started to cry. But, that's pointless, so I attempted to back up, since the girl at the Penske place definitely lied to me when she said the tow would turn the same way as the truck and not fishtail. I tried a few times to back straight up a few times and each attempt failed. Miserably. At the end of the lane, there was a grassy front yard of a house that was far back from the road.

It's about 1 a.m. by this time and the yard was looking good. My genius idea at this point was to just drive through the yard to turn around. There was a small dip in the grass, but I thought I would be able to pull it off.

Wrong again.

The tow connection got stuck on the road, just before the yard line.

Now I'm freaking out.

I tried to go forward. Nothing. Considered going backward and then remembered how well that went while in the road. I got out to look at the damage and even knocked on the door of the house since there was light in the front window, like someone watching a movie. And they had trucks so in my mind I thought maybe they could help.

No one answered. Probably a good thing, because who knows what I would say and who knows who lived there.

I walked back to the truck, looked again at how stuck I was, and sat on the grass and just broke down for a few minutes.

Enough! You have to do something I scolded myself.

Call dad? It's the middle of the night and he can't do anything about it. No.

Call Ben? He's at work and can't do anything either. No.

Wait! I have AAA! I called the number and thankfully the woman who answered the phone was sympathetic to my problem as I was still crying a little and running the risk of falling into hysteria.

Apparently, AAA couldn't help me, but she gave me phone numbers of some local towing companies. I called one who told me they had a $275 an hour fee. Keep in mind that I had quit my job and hadn't started the new one yet. My bank account was running on about as empty as my energy and rational thought that night.

The first company was about 20 miles away and I didn't know how stuck I was so I was hesitant to agree to $275 rate. I asked if he knew of closer companies and thankfully the man was kind enough to help me find his competition. Maybe it was the near tears crazy girl calling in the middle of the night.

Then it dawned on me that I'd paid for insurance with Penske and maybe that covered getting stuck in a ditch and needing a tow. I called Penske and she found a closer one that also cost a small fortune for ditch removal and the girl wasn't sure if my insurance would cover it all. But who cares, it's the middle of the night, get me out of the ditch already!

The tow truck showed up about an hour later and it was a huge tow truck. I mean huge. It probably could have pulled a tanker truck down the interstate without a hint of effort. They weren't sure how stuck I was and the Penske girl told them I had a 20 or 30 foot truck so they brought the big one to cover all contingencies -- hey, I like a planner.

The man was very nice and he took a look at my ditch situation and said he'd try to back it up first. He got to the driver's door about the time I remembered Grover was in the front seat. Yikes! For a 50-pound puppy, he's very protective. Grover barked and barked but the man was nice enough to stop for a few minutes and stand still and let Grover check him out. Grover still wasn't buying it, but I took him out to the yard and we sat in the grass while the tow man worked. I kept apologizing for the barking but the tow man told me that Grover was doing his job and I was lucky to have such a good dog. He didn't jump, bite or try to attack, but he stayed by my side and let everyone know that they weren't getting close to mom without his approval.

Within about 30 minutes the tow man had my truck out of the ditch and he turned it around so I could drive straight back out off the lane and to my hotel, which was a half-mile from the ditch. We were on our way again and the tow man even called about 20 minutes later to make sure Grover and I were okay and had made it to the hotel before he got all the way back to the shop. I hate that I can't remember his name, but I will be forever grateful to the man who rescued me that night.

By the time I got to bed it was at least 3 a.m. and then couldn't fall asleep for awhile, but slept in a bit later than I had originally scheduled (I may be a planner, but I also consider my plans a mere guideline and there's room for adaptation). The entire day I was stressed that the tow wasn't properly connected since I had gotten it stuck in a ditch. I held steady at 55 miles per hour, slowing me down considerably, but by the time I hit the Virginia line I was feeling much better. VIRGINIA!

I took the route that isn't the quickest to my parents' house, but is the straightest with the least turns. Of course I still missed my exit at one point since it's not my usual route and you can't change lanes all that quickly in a monster of a truck.

Finally home in Yorktown, I turned the truck around in the cul de sac of our lane and dad came out to meet us. Grover barked at him too until he remembered dad takes him for walks and plays with him and tries to get Grover to sit and watch football with him.

At home, we all chatted and mom and I broke out the wine. After that trip, I needed it.

Up next, I left the pup with my parents and I headed up to Alexandria to meet my soon to be roommate for some apartment shopping. I was thrilled to be rid of that truck and finally getting settled into the new place that we picked out with a kitchen I'm in love with and a fantastic deck. I slept like a rock after moving in, with just Danielle and I carrying everything including my queen mattress, and it was raining.

This is my life. Chaos.

Seattle in images

Hoh Rainforest

In case you were wondering how big that tree was, I hugged it.

Lake Crescent

La Push

Lake Crescent

Duwamp, Duwamp

I have to admit, the rest of the Seattle trip sort of runs together. I've even made a list on paper, trying to remember what we did on what day and in what order. So, I'll go over everything we did, but I make no promises that it will go in order or be on the right day. It happens.

But after I met up with my SPJ friend, Dana, she invited me to watch a taping of the local midday talk show at King 5. The best part? David Gregory of Meet the Press was a guest.

Being mega journalism nerds, we were stoked to meet him. And Dana asked him a question. And he took a picture with us. Yeah, we're those kind of nerds. But, come on! He's David Gregory!

That was definitely the highlight, but the rest of the show was highly entertaining. The fair was in town, so we ate fair food. Dana made me try chocolate covered bacon...absolutely gross! I had to throw away most of it. The guy who runs the fair food saw me toss it and he told me he didn't like the chocolate bacon either. But, fried cookie dough and fried pickles were okay. Other less appetizing options were on the table, but as adventurous as I am, it doesn't extend to food.

There was also a pizza tossing segment with maybe the most hilarious kid I've ever seen. He was tossing pizza dough all over the place and saying hysterical things and when the farm animals came on later, he decided he wanted to see them, so he just walked right back onto the set and pet them.

We were laughing so hard we were crying.

After the show, I headed back to meet my parents and one sister. They'd spent the morning at the aquarium. The littlest sister had orientation that morning.

We headed over to the ferry and crossed the water to Vashon Island. A friend of mine, who I met while stranded during a train strike in Italy in 2009, was working at a farm there. She was running the Pacific Crest Farm, which is part of a Montessori school there. I was excited to see my friend Jen and I thought my sister, Sam, would enjoy the visit since she had spent the summer interning on a farm and was very interested in agriculture and organic farming.

Jen and Sam discussed farming techniques, Jen and I caught up. She got married earlier that year at the farm and I had met her fiance as well while were waiting for a train to take us to Slovenia. Our Italian and Slovene language skills were limited, so it was tough. But we made friends with a local who spoke both languages and was going our way. He bought all of us coffee and we just chatted while we waited.

On the ferry to Vashon is when I asked my mom if I could move home as a back up plan if I quit my job and there was some overlap in my employment. She said yes, although she later admitted she had forgotten about the puppy. I sent in my resignation that night.

After our afternoon on the farm, we had to catch the ferry back to Seattle. We headed back to the University of Washington to pick up Maura. We grabbed some dinner and then headed to the Olympic National Forest.

I'm pretty sure we stopped and spent the night in Bremerton. The next day we headed into the park, in the rain, which was not especially promising. We stopped first at Lake Crescent, which is absolutely stunning. The rainy weather created a mist over the lake and the mountains that was just beautiful and serene.

After breaking the serenity of the lake with our family ridiculousness and photo taking, we headed further into the forest to the Hoh Rainforest. Mom wanted to do one of the hikes, which seemed like a great idea, except by then it was pouring. We were soaked. But, we did one of the loops, which was completely worth it.

I think we went to La Push that afternoon, or the next day, either way, we went to La Push, which is on Washington's coast. Mom really wanted to go and despite the rain, we went. The rain let up by the time we got there, but it was cold on the beach and overcast. I collected some rocks, I always do things like that. I have bags, jars, and more of rocks, shells, sticks, whatever I find. We found some cool driftwood, too, which will be another awesome joke for me, Sam and my Dad.

It was a pretty fun day actually.

That night we stayed in Forks. It's a middle of nowhere kind of town, but it's where the Twilight sage is set and basically the vampire, warewolf, whatever, theme has taken over the small town. We ate at Pacific Pizza where at least half the menu is Twilight themed. Oye.

The next day we headed back to Seattle, after stopping at Hurricane Ridge. It was cold and windy that day and in the mountains it was even colder But I doubled up on sweatshirts and convinced my mom to do the short hike to the top with me. The sun was peeking through the clouds and we got some spectacular views from the top.

Back in Seattle, I went for an early morning run along the water and we met Sam's friend, Bailey, at Pike Place Market. We hung out at the market for awhile then went by the Seattle Public Library, which has some pretty impressive architecture.

We also grabbed tickets for the Underground Tour, which I highly recommend. Our tour guide was Jerry, who was hysterical. I think he was an actor and writer, but he was incredibly entertaining and we had a blast. He called us Rowell girls, the farmer, the journalist and the engineer. And of course, we were also Virginia!

We went to mass that night and afterward, Maura and I met up with Sam and Bailey for dinner. Well, first we took the ferry, I think we went to Bainbridge, and then back again. Just for kicks. It was chilly, but clear and beautiful on the water. Just seeing the city at night was pretty spectacular and refreshing. It had been a busy week and for me, a bit life changing, since I quit my job without much of a plan. Yeah, sort of my style, so taking a minute to just enjoy the view was a fantastic idea.

Put four girls together, three of them being related, and it takes us awhile to decide where to eat dinner. We ended up at the Pike Brewing Company. Decent food, decent beer and lots of fun, it was a great way to wrap up our week in Seattle.

Old Cahawba photos

Just a few from our ghost town outing.

'bama's Ghost Town

Going back a few months since I hadn't posted it yet, but over the summer my friend, Chris, and I ventured out roughly an hour from Montgomery and explored Old Cahawba.

Cahawba was once the state capital, from 1820 to 1826, and a thriving river town until is was basically abandoned after the Civil War.

Despite the great weather, considering it was a Dixie summer, hardly anyone was out at Old Cahawba, which is not far from Selma.

We couldn't find anyone at the Welcome Center, but we found a brochure with a map and information and another brochure that was a guide for a nature trail. The guide was written in the voice Anna Gayle Fry, a Civil War-era resident of the town.

The guide pointed out different plants and the things they were used for during the war. Chris and I decided that if a similar situation of rationing and limited resources and civil war recurred, the average American wouldn't have the slightest idea how to use natural products for clothing, food, medicines and the like. We may have iPods and smart phones, but we aren't as industrious and resourceful as we once it seems.

After we finished the nature trail, we headed over to the ruins. There really isn't much left of the original structures, which is unfortunate. But, some columns from one of the houses remains. If I remember right, the house belonged to one of the businessmen who helped build the once boomtown.

Cahawba had been occupied as early as 4,000 years ago by Indians and DeSoto may have visited in 1540, according to the brochure published by the Alabama Historical Commission.

The town sits where two rivers converge and the area was prone to flooding. That convinced people to move the capital to Tuscaloosa in 1826 and Cahawba was largely abandoned.

But, the town recovered and became a social and commercial center. It became a major distribution point for cotton that was being shipped down the Alabama River on its way to Mobile. A railroad line came through in 1859 and by the time the Civil War started, the town's population was 3,000.

But during the war, the Confederate government seized the railroad and took the rails to extend a railroad nearby. Then a prison was established near the town center for captured Union troops with lice. Another flood in 1865 and the relocation of the county seat to Selma in 1866 contributed to the downfall of the town. Within 10 years, the town had become a ghost town, but during Reconstruction it became a meeting place for freedmen and the city became the "Mecca of the Radical Republican Party," according to the state historical commission.

But, that group soon moved on and by 1900 most of the buildings had been dismantled, burned, or otherwise destroyed.

Now, just bricks and dirt mounds exist at Cahawba. There isn't much to see, but it is fascinating to walk and imagine what the town might have looked like in it's glory days. You can see part of the perimeter of the prison, although now it's only a line of bricks and as far as we could tell, they didn't line up with the diagram on the info boards. But, those were just diagrams and it's been awhile, so I guess expecting it to be just right was unreasonable. The columns were interesting and did actually look like the picture (that never happens!) but that was about all that was there.

We agreed that the site was a walk through time, but that so much more could be done with it. Not to develop it or turn it into a ridiculous tourist site, but to have better signs with more information and to better maintain the site. I never knew the site existed or how much a part of Alabama history it was until I just happened upon some information in a state tourism book.

It's like many things in Alabama. It's a different place, sure, but it's a state with a sometimes surprisingly rich history. But, unless you go looking for it, you often don't know it's there.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Get your passports ready!

If you need some travel inspiration, check out this list. It's got some great ideas, some classic destinations, some off the beaten track spots and some I hadn't thought of yet. Plus, the list includes my next planned destination -- Estonia.